Book review – Don Rickles: The Merchant of Venom

Done Rickles

The insult comic is a comedy specialty that has a double-edged sword to it.

They can spew a string of comic insults to their unsuspecting targets … and get laughs, not slaps. That is why this domain is populated by a few comics, who are the best at plying their own brand of insult comedy.

This pantheon includes Groucho Marx, Jack E. Leonard and the “Merchant of Venom” himself, the late great Don Rickles.

Done Rickles
Don Rickles: The Merchant of Venom by Michael Seth Starr

Younger generations remember Rickles mainly as the voice of Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story movies for nearly 30 years. However, Baby Boomers remember Rickles for his machine gun-style of insult comedy that earned him a large following for decades, which saw him play to packed crowds in nightclubs and Las Vegas hotels, as well as his scene-stealing moments on the Dean Martin Celebrity Roast telecasts, and his memorable surprise appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (especially one time in 1968 when Carson dunked Rickles into a Japanese bathtub … fully clothed!).

Now, Don Rickles fans of all ages and eras have a complete portrait of the man who really personified “Mr. Warmth” with Michael Seth Starr’s recently released biography Don Rickles: The Merchant of Venom.

Starr, a veteran TV reporter and columnist for the New York Post, has done a terrific job giving both sides of Don Rickles both on and off the stage. He portrays Rickles as a kind, charitable man who deeply loved his family and his mother Etta, who was a stage mother that charmed, not scared, show biz people who were part of her son’s life, especially when she offered them a bowl of her famous chicken soup.

Although his insult-laden humour always played well to live audiences since the 1950s, the one stumbling block was that it didn’t translate well in the roles he did in movies (i.e., Run Silent, Run Deep, Kelly’s Heroes and the Rat Race) and on a multitude of TV appearances, with the exception of Gomer Pyle, The Addams Family and even an episode of The Twilight Zone, not to mention his late 70s starring sitcom CPO Sharkey; and don’t forget his memorable supporting role as Billy Sherbet, Robert de Niro’s right-hand man in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 epic crime drama Casino.

And for those who regularly attended the Just For Laughs festival, Starr faithfully recaptures the magic and adulation that surrounded Rickles’ two appearances at the festival in 1998 and 2014 (the former has a personal connection, as my gravely ill mom attended JFL for the very last time, visited Rickles’ dressing room following the show and he treated my parents like royalty, which is recalled in the book).

Don Rickles: The Merchant of Venom is the biographical treatment that the veteran comedian deserves. It pays tribute to his remarkable contribution to the world of modern comedy with such affection and fun, which serves as a wonderful salute to the two sides of this charming, dedicated individual who made a living being a caustic, mean-spirited comedian (but with a heart).

It’s enough to make you want to strut around the house as if it’s the ballroom of the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas (circa 1975) and belt out his signature tune “I’m A Nice Guy!”.  So don’t be a hockey puck; read this book!

Stuart Nulman
By: Stuart Nulman – [email protected]

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